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Air Force moves to shutter community board overseeing toxic pollution at Kelly AFB

Photo: Michael Brajas, License: N/A

Michael Brajas

Robert Alvarado at his home in the Toxic Triangle last year.

Robert Alvarado is a decades-long veteran of life in the so-called Toxic Triangle, the small fence-line community that bumps up against the now-shuttered Kelly Air Force Base. At 70, Alvarado struggles with kidney problems and is nearly blind from an aneurysm. Both his wife and daughter are fighting off thyroid cancer, while a cousin, once a worker at the base, lost his battle with liver cancer six years ago.

“Our fight for justice here is far from over,” repeats Alvarado, one of many past and present community members who continue to blame the neighborhood's health woes, at least in part, on the dumping of industrial solvents and other toxic chemicals in and around Kelly decades ago.

However, U.S. Air Force officials contend we're now “in the home stretch” in scrubbing Kelly's toxic past clean. Plans to dissolve an advisory board made of up regulatory officials and community members by the end of 2012 were floated at last week's gathering of the Restoration Advisory Board by Air Force Real Property Agency spokeswoman Linda Geissinger. Numerous community members and several scientists who have investigated the site say such an action would be premature.

“It just feels like a way for the Air Force to wash their hands,” Alvarado said.

The RAB was assembled in 1994 as the official forum for dialogue between community members and the Air Force as the latter works to shrink toxic plumes in the area's groundwater. The plumes, once stretching beneath more than 20,000 homes, are the result of contamination caused by routine dumping of trichloroethylene (TCE), a degreaser, and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), a paint-stripper. With over 150 meetings under its belt, the RAB has watched closely as the Air Force has spent roughly a quarter- billion dollars cleaning up. Various health impact studies conducted over those 20 years have failed to draw a definitive link between the contaminants and the neighborhood's elevated cancer rates and higher-than-normal birth abnormalities.

In 2010 the Air Force turned over the last patch of Kelly to the Port San Antonio industrial park, and last year Tennessee-based contractor Shaw E&I was awarded a nine and a half year contract to continue cleanup and monitoring. “These are  all some of the basic triggers when considering RAB adjournment,” Geissinger said. “All of these major decisions have already been made. … So what's left that we're asking advice for?”

In a lengthy letter to Air Force officials by a longtime RAB member, Rodrigo Garcia demands the Air Force set a number of agenda items dealing with ongoing local health concerns.

The Real Property Agency's two-page reply to Garcia says the military remains committed to reaching “a final environmental solution.” Stephen Termaath with the BRAC program management division notes that a 10-year, $5 million agreement with San Antonio's Metro Health department to study potential health problems, which concluded last year, have failed to link “past or present Kelly AFB activities to the health concerns of the community.” Still, Garcia points to lingering questions over a 2006-2007 study by cancer cluster expert Tim Aldrich commissioned by Metro Health, first dug up by former Current reporter Greg Schwartz years after the agency effectively buried the results. In his conclusions Aldrich notes dozens of cancer cases that, when accounting for all other possible factors like lifestyle and genetics, could not be accounted for.

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